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Editor’s note: Tom Vilsack testified recently in Washington, D.C., at a hearing on climate change and the agricultural sector, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. He spoke about the U.S. dairy industry’s new effort to address climate change, water quality, food security and other issues. This is part two, continued from the June 6 issue of Agri-View.

Monumental first step starts long journey

The dairy sector has a long way to go to achieve our aspirations. But this initiative marks a monumental first step. Net Zero Project demonstration farms will serve as a proof of concept. The research and analysis performed there will undergird the project’s other enterprise – improving farmer engagement. Those steps are not sequential; improving farmer engagement can and should be constantly on our minds.

Many producers are already implementing practices to reduce their environmental footprint. Even more seek to do so, but are constrained financially. From a technical and financial standpoint, the USDA plays a critical role in strengthening the viability of a farmer’s operation.

In the current farm economy, where milk prices prevent many farmers from even breaking even, the USDA’s role is even more important. Under my direction, the USDA undertook research and developed a framework to help farmers, ranchers and foresters to respond to climate change.

Farmer engagement critical

The “Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry” guided the agency in its farmer engagement. They placed a premium on producer-led adaptation and resilience. The USDA must adopt a long-term outlook on farming and the rural economy. It must recognize farms not only as producers of food and fiber, but also providers of energy as well as clean air and water.

The farm bill authorizes the USDA to provide a variety of tools to engage producers. Currently the National Resources Conservation Service uses the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to annually provide $90 million to $100 million in cost-share funds to dairy producers. Also the Conservation Innovation Grants program and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program can play a large role in increasing the adoption of sustainable practices.

But to achieve our goals National Resources Conservation Service programs will need to be more fully funded and made more amenable to innovation. Congressional restrictions and agency interpretation place eligibility requirements on programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and create barriers for those wanting to adopt new technologies. For instance we envision a Conservation Stewardship Program that could assist in the development and adoption of advanced feed-management solutions on dairies.

Feed additives part of effort

We are aware of feed additives that significantly reduce the methane emissions associated with enteric fermentation. Those additives require FDA approval for widespread use. While we aren’t asking for a relaxation of the review process, we wish to see a prompt and expedient decision that prioritizes safety and efficacy. If the feed additives improve feed efficiency and animal welfare, they will be quickly adopted throughout the industry. If on the other hand they bring the producer no economic gain, then they should be considered for eligibility as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Feed additives are a fine example of sound regulatory policy making a difference. In addition to cost-sharing voluntary conservation efforts, the USDA and partner agencies must modernize the regulatory review process for new technologies in order to attract additional investments.

Federal funding will be required to establish the Net Zero Project’s demonstration farms, but our goal is to work with policy makers to create an environment conducive to increased investments by farmers, technology providers and those benefiting from their ecosystem services. Only then will those solutions scale, and only then will the current model for dairy production be revolutionized.

Rethink voluntary conservation

In short, we – the dairy sector, Congress and the USDA – need to rethink the way voluntary conservation is funded and delivered. Our struggling farm economy and the natural resources upon which we depend demand it. Federal funding for existing farm-bill conservation programs is, and will continue to be, critical to farmers who take on additional production risks for improved environmental outcomes. But Congress and federal agencies must also modernize the regulatory-review process while maintaining its integrity, so farmers and ranchers can access the technologies required for them to protect our environment. Congress and federal agencies must also set in place policies that recognize dairy’s role in the provision of ecosystem services as well as incentivize the investments of farmers and other private entities to this end.

Transparency needed globally

We are undertaking this bold initiative in response to the domestic and global demand for transparency and environmental performance as additional attributes of safe and nutritious dairy products. We know we can and will do better, but the work must start now.

We also know that today’s dire economic outlook makes this a difficult, perhaps even politically dangerous, time for the dairy sector to engage in this conversation. Yet we remain optimistic that more profitable times are on the horizon – because the dairy farm of the future will not only provide milk, but also energy and ecosystem services.

Through this project we hope to demonstrate that carbon neutrality and minimized water-quality impacts can be profitable for farms. They can even be monetized through ecosystem-service crediting and lay the groundwork for increased investment in voluntary conservation.

Our success will not be the result of legislation or regulation, but rather the result of hundreds of thousands of daily, weekly and annual independent and individual decisions made by tens of thousands of dairy producers.

Multi-generational effort starts now

The magnitude of our net-zero goal is better understood if one considers the cycles of operating a dairy. Our goal will be achieved through successive seasons of breeding decisions and lactation – representing multiple generations of cows – and several crop seasons worth of planting and harvesting decisions. The average farmer makes about 40 years of cropping, breeding and management decisions.

When considered in that light, achieving the net-zero goal will require the collective management decisions of several generations of dairy farmers, some of who are yet to be born.

The groundwork for a carbon-neutral dairy sector already exists but it must be further developed, nurtured and cultivated. We have a commitment to stewardship and a crop of promising technologies and practices. What we need is quick and resolute action by Congress, the USDA and the EPA to support producer-led conservation, and a series of demonstration farms to show farmers throughout the country how to proceed.

Some individual farms may not achieve net zero. Others may already be there. Still others may go beyond that, to the point where they sequester, capture and mitigate more greenhouse gases than they emit.

The objective is to incentivize and account for each farmer and processor individual as part of an industry-wide commitment. The contributions to the goal will vary with each producer, each processor and each handler in the value chain. And that’s appropriate if we are to recognize and respect the diversity of dairy sizes, production practices and regional concerns.

Tom Vilsack is the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Visit www.usdec.org for more information.

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